The first Keystone Partner Survey is a ground-breaking initiative to measure the performance of northern NGOs. It summarises feedback from over 1,000 of their southern partners, who told the northern NGOs exactly what they thought about them. Because the data was quantified, the northern NGOs could benchmark their performance and pinpoint where they were doing well and where they should improve.

During 2010, Keystone brought together 25 international NGOs based in the UK and US, including household names like Save the Children and Christian Aid, and smaller organisations such as Peace Direct. Keystone administered the same carefully-designed questionnaire to all of them. The report and questionnaire are available here.

Across the field, two very clear findings stand out.

First, local organisations send a clear message. They do not want to be treated as sub-contractors, carrying out international agencies’ projects and priorities. They want agencies’ help to become independent and influential organisations in their own right, responding flexibly to local people’s needs.

Second, this feedback is a reliable way of measuring performance. Benchmarks have been calculated and direct comparisons can be made between aid agencies – which is a first for the sector. The report calls for a new reporting standard for agencies that fund local partners. This would create a new level of transparency and accountability, so funds can be directed towards agencies that support local efforts best.

Impressively, some of the international agencies have already chosen to publish their confidential reports, including AbleChildAfrica, Peace Direct, Progressio and Practical Action. Let’s hope more of the others follow.

Carolyn Hayman, PeaceDirect’s CEO, commented: "The Keystone report has helped us focus on the strengths and limitations of our model of locally led peacebuilding. It's invaluable to have direct and honest feedback from our partners, in a form that is specific enough that we can improve in the future. The benchmarks provide a whole new level of insight so we can understand exactly how we are performing compared to other NGOs."

Respondents were equally enthusiastic. Their comments included:

I really appreciated the survey. All questions are clear and relevant and will surely contribute to improve our relationships with [the NGO] in future.
And these comments on various NGOs indicate Southern partners’ preferences:
[Our NGO’s] approach [is] much appreciated. It consults us while developing a proposal, takes time to discuss with us and finalise the proposal, fund it and go on with monitoring. All this process in a respectful and transparent manner.
[The NGO] supports us to ... undertake international advocacy and networking with like-minded organisations. This is very important in an era of globalisation.
“In the past [the NGO] was much more flexible, and respected [our] planning and priorities. Now it tends to be much more demanding, trying to get partners to fit the requests of the governments or other co-funders.
[The NGO] seems to set ambitious targets as compared to the anticipated result [and] the resources provided... This kills the creativity and flexibility of partners implementing to attain the result.
In summary, the survey process has generated powerful performance data for the northern NGOs and a reliable and safe way for southern partners to make their views heard about how relationships can work better for them. It is already leading to changes in how the northern NGOs operate. If it became standard practice, and surveys were routinely conducted, it could create incentives for northern NGOs to be even more responsive to their southern partners and drive up performance across the sector.

Or, as another respondent put it, “I believe this survey will assist [the northern NGO] in assessing its relationship with its partners and provide an opportunity to narrow any existing gaps in terms of its internal management. This survey will be an important tool for long term planning for [the northern NGO] and its partners.”

Peace Direct was ranked top agency in the survey. Its response can be read here (pdf).